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The welcome winter festival has been upon us, starting with the solstice of the sun and carrying on until those late-arriving gift-givers, the magi, finally show up, as they will, in all their many shapes and stylings and apparitions. The magi we know best first appear in the Gospel of Matthew—those three wise men, long thought to be Persian astrologers, following a star from the East to find, and crown, the new King. One need not be a believer to find it a stirring tale of the entanglements of wisdom and revelation, and all the more pleasing for being a little enigmatic: What wise men, what star, what journey? There is something about them to appeal to every imagination, not least in their canny voyage home, by “another way,” to evade King Herod’s plot.
The specifics of the story have long been exploded, of course. Despite many attempts over the centuries to find some historical astronomical occurrence that might correlate with the Biblical account, the physicist Aaron Adair has proposed that there was no event in the skies fit for the purpose: no comet, meteor, or supernova to explain it. The star was imagined—made up, in part, probably, because of Old Testament prophecies that demanded such a star if a Messiah was to be born at all.
A little further reading suggests that the Zoroastrian Persian priestly caste whom the author of Matthew would have probably known as magi were at the time vehemently uninterested in astrology, which they regarded as Roman guff. Indeed, other scholars insist that the Gospel’s author did not mean for the Magi to be wise guys at all—or, rather, only in the strictly Scorsesean sense, as cheaters and scammers whose fake magic was humbled by the real revelation. Matthew’s purpose in bringing them into the scene was to scoff at their obsolescence, not to boast of their endorsement.
Yet the ideal of the Magi, the magical visitors, endures. Their vindication continues in the hands of the historian Anthony Grafton, whose new book, “Magus: The Art of Magic from Faustus to Agrippa,” explores the role of self-styled magicians in the Renaissance. These magi, who claimed explicit descent from the Matthean ones, operated for several hundred years on the border between what had long been superstition and what would become science. “Magi is the term for wise men,” the German Renaissance polymath Johannes Trithemius wrote, adding, “I am not ashamed to be called a ‘philomagus’ with them, since I love divine, human, and natural learning. This is my magic, which I follow.”
Grafton’s magi are an appealing gang, inasmuch as they turn out to have occupied the liminal space between what was faith and what would become fact. The intellectual fabric that their investigations wove, as Grafton entertainingly relays, was an entanglement of absurd system and authentic discovery, of systematic fraud and startling originality, of obvious nonsense and pregnant novelty. We find the medieval magi diligently advancing astronomy by mapping the skies and the planets, with one desired goal being to predict the planetary conjunctions of Jupiter and Saturn—the so-called great conjunction, which they believed marked all the significant turning points in human history. The thirteenth-century English scholar Roger Bacon, Grafton writes, “argued that only six great religions could exist, each of them presided over by the conjunction of a planet with Jupiter—Judaism, for example, was the religion of Saturn.” (If this seems ridiculous, note that the most recent great conjunction was in 2020—surely as momentous a year as any of those sages could have anticipated.)
The novelty of Grafton’s view is that what makes the magi matter are not their myths but their machines. They made things, and it was on the basis of what they made that we got not theoretical science but technology. It was the shrewd recognition that there was, as they called it, “real artificial magic” that made the Renaissance magi our true predecessors. Automatons and astrolabes alike, it seems, were parts of their apparatus. By fudging the barrier not so much between science and magic but between artisanal engineering and imaginative speculation, they helped create this world we live in now.
They loved to make startling automatons, grasping that any machine that works by means we do not understand looks like magic—and also that all such mechanisms will look like the devil to uneducated eyes. Indeed, one can trace this history of diabolic-seeming machinery from their time through the cascade of new devices leading to our own. A fifteenth-century wooden devil-doll, with “moveable eyes, tongue, horns, arms, and wings,” gave way to the eighteenth-century chess-playing “Turk,” whose very simple machinery no one could understand. Modern magi gave us, in the nineteenth century, the ominous device of the telegraph. (It’s surely no accident that Samuel Morse’s first telegraph message read “What hath God wrought?”) Radio and TV had their moments of seeming magic, and latest in this line is, of course, the spectre of artificial intelligence. Right now, of all these magical machines, A.I. looks like the one that will, at last, rush us all to Hell. Still, many machines have threatened us with that infernal descent in the past, and, as yet, it has not quite occurred. We’ve seen lots of hells, just not the final one. Everything looks like magic until you know it’s a machine, and every machine you don’t yet know looks like a deal made with the devil.
What all the mythology and history of the magi suggests is that no bright lines exist to separate fakery from faith, or cunning machinery from magical apparatus. There aren’t any sharp margins between the irrational and the rational, between what we guess at and what we are sure of, between the wisdom we revere and the fakery we mistrust. We never know exactly who is who, or which is which, just as we will never know exactly where we are. The ambiguities of the Magi’s apparition remain a lesson in whom to call wise, and why to call them so. All knowledge is labile, all identity liminal. Wide-eyed wonder becomes blind faith, just as sharp-eyed skepticism curdles into narrow-minded cynicism. How, then, are we to find our way home? It helps to imagine a star. ♦